Proceeding With Caution

When I was a kid, my father would take my brother and me for rides, probably just to get us out of the house and give my mother a break.  I never knew the purpose of those rides at the time, but to me it meant parking by the roadside to pick daisies for my mother, stopping for a chocolate soda at the drugstore, then driving slowly back through the neighborhood streets before we finally floated to a stop in front of our house.

That was the best, if most puzzling part: the excruciatingly slow pace at which my father drove our ’46 Dodge.  He steered it with both hands up and down the streets like a blue tortoise while strolling neighbors glanced at us suspiciously.  My brother and I would giggle, half-embarrassed, half-knowingly, as my father would intone sotto voce: “Scout car.”

I was never sure what that meant.  But since this was the post-war era, it sounded very military and made me feel important.  My father had been an army physician; he had the uniform and the cap and the ribbons.  Therefore, to my mind, he had every right to drive slowly down the street murmuring “scout car.”

My mother had always been an accomplice to his lightfootedness.  She accused him of speeding if he took his foot off the brake.  Years ago when I was still holding my tongue, I would give in when he visited me and insisted on driving.  I once sat rigidly stoic as he tooled up the passing lane of I-95 at a brisk 30 mph.  Cars zoomed by on our right, their drivers expressing emotion in various ways from honking to creative finger thrusts.  As I slunk lower in the seat I muttered, “Dad, you’re going to cause an accident if you keep driving like this.”  To which my mother bleated, “Ben, I told you that you go too fast.”

The older he got, the more sluggish his driving got, which inevitably led to a few minor accidents.  The city of Washington, D.C., where he lived and drove, was not happy about that.  After a particular vehicular adventure–the one that involved exiting a parking space in front of the neighborhood drugstore without looking–he landed in traffic court.  His defense was that, even though he was going very slowly (surprise!), someone hit him.  The judge was unmoved.  It was Dad’s fault.  They wanted him re-tested, or they wanted his license.

But Dad wasn’t handing it over without a fight.  No way, he said.  They want him to take a driving test?  He’ll take a driving test.

Before he got out of the drivers’ test parking lot, he failed.  And why did he fail?  “Because,” he said with true amazement, “the guy told me I didn’t stop at the stop sign before I went out on the street.”

Well.  Did he stop?  “I didn’t need to.  I was going very slowly.”

When he was allowed to re-take the test, he made sure he stopped at the stop sign.  He failed anyway.  “I don’t understand,” he complained afterward.  “I did everything right.  I passed the eye test.  I parked.  I drove very cautiously.”  Then why did he fail?  “The guy said I drove too cautiously.  How can you drive too cautiously?”  I suggested that perhaps this was God’s way of telling him to take cabs.

On his third try, he passed.  I figured he just wore them down.  And so it was renewed once more.  He never had to worry about being tested again: the D.C. license bureau stopped testing older people, even for vision.  He could do it by mail.

So until the day he died at the age of 87, the citizens of Washington remained on the lookout for a lurching, rambling ’84 Cutlass the color of dried prunes with a legally licensed Lightfoot behind the wheel.

Somewhere, I know he’s still driving.  He probably rolled right through the stop sign at the heavenly gate–very slowly, very cautiously, both hands gripping the wheel.  Murmuring under his breath the mysterious words: “Scout car.”

St. Petersburg Times 6/16/02